Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sweet and Low, by Rich Cohen

On the Sunday after the holiday, my family was still celebrating Thanksgiving. A half-full pan of leftover turkey sat on the middle shelf in the fridge, and the beds in our basement and spare rooms were still warm from out-of-town relatives, my mother-in-law and cousins. Every year on Thanksgiving, my family dines on a meal featuring a giant roasted bird, marshmallow-topped sweet potato and orange-cranberry-apple relish, but what we really look forward to is gathering with family. Expectations like these can be a recipe for disappointment.

This year, the holiday served as a nudge, a reminder, to keep my expectations in check. To stay flexible. The cousins who always come in from St. Louis had to leave early to attend a friend's wedding. My West Coast father had to cancel his visit when he came down with a bout of arthritis so severe it sent him to the hospital. My mother-in-law made the trip from Cincy, but not until turkey-day-plus-one -- she couldn't find anyone to feed the stray cat she's been giving bowls on tuna to for the past few years.

Since we're talking Thanksgiving, I'll segue into being thankful for books -- which is what I'm supposed to be writing about, anyway. For instance, Rich Cohen's family memoir, "Sweet and Low." Cohen is a grandson of Ben Eisenstadt, the man who invented sugar packets (Am I the only one old enough to remember the sugar crust on the metal-topped glass pourers that sat on tables in diners next to the ketchup and mustard?), and Sweet 'N Low, the artificial sweetener in the little pink packets. This family memoir may not feature early-departing cousins, arthritic fathers, or cat-obsessed mother-in-laws, but Cohen's got his own cast of zany characters. And his journalism background -- he's written for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair -- serves him well. The dialogue in "Sweet and Low" will slay you. His rich uncles are machers and his great-aunts are nuts, which is how it is in all families, right? Cohen shows us a version of the Amercian Dream, a small family business that serendipitously finds a way to fill a need. But things don't stay sweet for long in "Sweet and Low." Scientists uncovered evidence that saccharine may be carcinogenic, there was family infighting, the business developed ties to the mafia, and there were troubles with the government. Cohen gives his family's story context by peppering the text with cultural touchpoints -- the advent of the country's dieting craze, how takeovers took over America's business landscape, and how government regulations serve to protect the public while crippling business.

"Sweet and Low" is a loving look at family, and a nice reminder that even when my kin can't join me for the holiday, there's still plenty to be thankful for.


  1. So the moral of the story is: It always helps with perspective when we get a look at how the other guy lives. I think I need to read that one.

  2. Karen,
    Bakers will find this extra "meaty." And more importantly, the book answered the question: How is it Sweet 'N Low has no calories?